Daniel Kitson’s latest show Something Other than Everything includes a short section where he riffs on the fact that in the village he grew up in, people referred to the shop owned by an Asian family as “The paki shop”. He compares this to his nice middle class family, who called it “The sikh shop”, and ends with the conclusion the proper term would have been simply “the shop”. It’s a bit that has provoked some criticism. At the Guardian Nosheen Iqbal has written about feeling “winded” by his use of the word. Kitson can’t reclaim a word he’s never been called, she argues.
I want to talk a little bit about why I am willing to acceept Kitson using it in that set, when i might not accept others. In particular i want to compare it to Louis CK, and a routine he performed when he toured London last year.
In his routine, Louis CK talks about the crude racial stereotypes he employs to amuse his daughters. One character, “the quiet man” is a caricature of a Japanese man, another “the friendly man” is very clearly a stereotype of an African American. Because he does not openly identify each with a specific ethnicity, his daughters are unaware of the racial context and he feels he can get away with it.
Iqbal relates a history of intimidation, vandalism and threats of violence linked to the word, which Kitson’s set brought back to her. I was called the word a few times growing up, and certainly had to sit through my share of paki-jokes from other children. But i was not subject to the same level of violence and intimidation. So maybe that influences the licence I am willing to grant Kitson, which Iqbal is not.
In Kitson’s defence, I don’t think he was attempting to reclaim the word. Neither is he inviting the audience to congratulate him and themselves at achieving greater racial sensitivity than a Yorkshire village in the 1970s. Instead, the gag fits into a wider trope in the routine. Repeatedly he makes a statement or proclaims a value only to undermine it. This is not presented as evidence of Kitson’s smug superiority. Instead it is evidence of chronic insecurity. Kitson continually tries to establish something he’s sure of, then reads something, or speaks to someone that fatally undermines his confidence. As a result the show loops round and round presenting ideas, dismissing them, and fretting whether he was right to do so.
In this context, the riff comes across more like a chastisement, to himself and the audience for their (presumed) willingness accept “the sikh shop” as an improvement on “the Paki shop”. To be honest, it’s not the best bit of the show, you can see the conslusion coming so the intended bait and switch doesn’t really come off. But nonetheless, given the huge amount of reflection and self-examination, the continual questioning of his own ethics and justifications; I don’t find the routine troubling. I feel that in this show, Kitson has earned the right to make a joke with the word Paki in it.
Given that, why did Louis CK’s routine bother me? Similar to Daniel Kitson, Louis CK’s routines often engage in a very close analysis at how a particular phrase or comment works. Previous routines have engaged in a deep and nuanced dissection of how race, gender and privilege operate. Surely Louis CK has earned it, if Daniel Kitson has?
But, similar to Iqbal, I had the experience of feeling I was boring companions and friends who saw the routine. Most people I spoke to, who had seen it were pretty happy to go along with it. Louis CK had not openly identified his impressions with their obvious targets. The joke did not then hinge on a set of shared racial assumptions that he was inviting the audience to join him in laughing at.
Except it was, wasn’t it? A key component of the gag was: “here are some crude stereotypes of Black and Japanese people”. The transgressive thrill that Iqbal assigns to Daniel Kitson feels more appropriately applied here. Part of the rush is Louis CK giving the audience permission to laugh at crude racist stereotypes. But why was it necessary to do so? The gag was a 3-minute bit in an 1.5 hour routine. And that was a large part of the problem. Context is king. Kitson’s gag fell in the middle of a c. 2 hour routine that obsessively examined privilege, race and language. He continually challenged his own position as middle class man, and as a comic and examined the ethics of his words and actions. Louis CK just threw in some stereotypes with (to me) kind of flimsy ironic covering. He just hadn’t done the prep work to earn that kind of licence.
Why does any of this matter? Well in the grand scheme it doesn’t. But, I occasionally find myself getting into debates with people about whether a given artwork, or joke or statement is racist. About whether a given writer, or actor of comedian is allowed to say something. I think the difference between my reaction to Daniel Kitson and Louis CK explains a lot about my wider feelings on this. I don’t think comedians or writers have to stop saying any given word, or talking about any given subject. But words and subjects are not weightless, and they are not all the same. And the heavier they are, the more work i think you should have to do before you can throw them.